By Peter Kemeny
Portrayals of Jesus in religious art, Sunday school curriculums, evangelistic films, and stain glass windows are commonly accepted as good and helpful. Depictions of our Savior abound during the Christmas season. What shall we make of this?
Representations of Jesus, though usually well-intentioned, overlook the second commandment’s injunction that we make no “carved image” of God (Exodus 20:4). The Westmin- ster Catechism (question 109) explains that the second commandment forbids “making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.”
Sincere Christians sometimes say that pictures of Jesus serve as an aid to their devotion. One lady explained, “Looking at Jesus’ face in the stained glass window helps me to focus as I worship.” The problem with using images of Jesus as a devotional aid is that these pictures cannot but misrepresent Jesus. This is because Scripture tells us nothing about Jesus’ physical appearance, apart from an allusion in Isaiah 53:2 that the Messiah “had no beauty that we should desire him.”
Some may say, “Well, that’s okay,” but such a standard would be unac- ceptable in other circumstances. Before I met my wife, Becky, I talked to her on the phone for three weeks. Had I said to her, “I’m carrying around in my pocket a photograph of another woman, and every time I look at it, it reminds me of you,” she would not have been flattered. Neither is God flattered at visual misrepresentations.
Inaccurate representations of Christ also can repel people from Christian- ity. The nineteenth century portrayal of a gentle Jesus, meek and mild, an almost effeminate looking man, has turned more men away from Christi- anity than we can imagine.
Peter Barnes, in a helpful booklet on the second commandment, writes that artists cannot portray Christ in the full glory of His deity, so they are generally forced to attempt to portray Him only in the humility of his manhood. They cannot attempt to paint heaven, so they confine themselves to earth.
They leave aside the exalted Christ, whose glory blinded Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, and at whose feet the apostle John fell ‘as dead’ (Acts 9:3-9; Revelation 1:17), and they restrict themselves to conjectures as to His human form. But Scripture allows no such separation between the two natures of Christ.
Even in the period of His humilia- tion, now forever past, it was the fact that He is God that made Him the Savior. Those who portray Christ in visible form must, as Thomas Watson said, portray a “half Christ.” And if we only see Christ as a man, we have missed the stupendous truth at the heart of the gospel, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate De- ity!” (“Seeing Jesus,” Banner of Truth).
Rather than drawing our thoughts of Jesus from physical representa- tions, we should draw our conception of Jesus from the Bible. Scripture reveals a Christ who embodies, in Jona- than Edwards’ words, an “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies,” a breathtaking Savior whose attributes cannot be captured on canvas.?
Peter Kemeny is pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church in Frederick, MD.